I had to get out of this room. My palms were drenched in sweat, too slick to open the door. Cole grabbed my arm and forced me to stand in front of the desk, forced me to look down at the photos and see them, absorb the blood, the bone, the vacant eyes.
“These are the people we’re dealing with,” he said. “This is reality. These are people who won’t hesitate to kill anyone who interferes with their orders. This is what hesitation has cost us. This is why we have to fight. Revolutions are won with blood, not words. These photos have been out for days, and what have they done to get people involved—angry enough to stand up and protest? Nothing. Ruby, even this isn’t enough. They all think they’re fake.”
“Let me go!” I struggled out of his grip, the floor rising and rolling under me. That face, I knew that face—the girl in green—
“No one is going to fight for us, Ruby—we have to fight. We have to end this. Match force with force. Every second we waste circling back and debating the same shit is a second we could be saving these kids from something like this. What do you think sparked this? They were beaten to death. Was it because they tried to escape? They were caught in the middle of a fight? Did some PSF snap? Does it matter?”
Oh my God, I was going to be sick. I pressed my fists against my eyes, trying to remember how it was I usually went about breathing. “These pictures are from Thurmond—this is Thurmond. That girl—that girl in green—”
Cole’s grip on me tightened. I had the vague sense that he was the only reason I was still standing on my feet.
“I know her. Her name is...was...Ashley. She was one of the older girls in my...”
“In your cabin?” Cole finished. “Are you sure? Maybe you should take another look.”
I did and it changed nothing. I lived with those girls for years, I knew their faces better than I knew my own. Ashley had been at Thurmond for over a year before I showed up, and she took care of us like you’d think a big sister would. She was nice. She was...
“Okay,” Cole said quietly. “I’m sorry. I believe you. I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have showed them to you at all if I’d known. The source that sold them to Amplify didn’t identify which camp they’re from.”
Jesus—that ditch. The realization thundered down around me. They were putting them in that ditch? That was what they got? After everything—this?
This was Thurmond. This was real. We weren’t going fast enough. I hadn’t been able to get to them in time. A swell of bile rose up in me, and I ripped myself out of Cole’s grip, collapsing onto my knees. I barely got my face into the trash can before I could throw up everything in my stomach.
When I came back to the moment, Cole was holding my hair back with one hand, rubbing a circle across my shoulder blades with the other. I braced my arms against the plastic container and gave in to the sting of tears.
“Did the source say what happened?” I used the tissue he handed me to wipe my mouth. I felt lightheaded, like I was slipping out of the moment, and fought against the pull.
“They issued a statement saying one of the PSFs stationed there snuck a cell phone into the camp and snapped the photos. Ruby...I think—I don’t want to believe this, but it seems like too much of a coincidence that this happened and they’re closing the camp. There are over three thousand kids there and the other camps are small and crowded. Is it possible they’re trying to reduce the population of kids before the move?”
“They’ve killed kids before,” I said. “The ones who tried to escape...the Oranges. Reds who wouldn’t let themselves be controlled. If this has happened once, it’ll happen again. They’re going to keep doing this. We’re sitting around, waiting to get one useful piece of information, and they’re dying. This can’t just be about evidence. Not for Thurmond. We need to get those kids out now.”
I saw the future with sharp clarity and it wasn’t a road, it wasn’t a sky, it wasn’t anything that beautiful. It was electricity singing through metal chain-link and bars. It was mud and rain and a thousand days bleeding into a stream of black.
Cole must have sensed it, seen it reflected in my face, because he leaned back and finally let me go.
“We’re going to need actual fighters for the Thurmond hit,” I said. “Trained soldiers to go in first.”
“Agreed,” Cole said, looking away. “Harry...Harry offered to help us fight. I wasn’t going to say yes. I hate the idea of owing him anything, but we don’t have any time to waste now. Nico is right. The only way to shut down the camp’s defenses is by attacking them from within. I’ll see if I can try to bribe one of the PSFs—someone has to know someone there—”
“No,” I said, my voice calm. “It has to be me. I have to be the one who goes back. A PSF can flip, take a bribe, tip the camp controllers off to what we’re doing. If it has to be done, I’m going to do it myself.”
“The others will never agree to it,” Cole said quietly, but he didn’t disagree. He didn’t want to stop me.
“I know,” I said, “that’s why we aren’t going to tell them until we have to.”
Over the next week, the face of the Ranch seemed to change.
Kylie and the other driver who had gone out looking for tribes returned victorious, even as Liam set out to find Olivia twice and came back empty-handed both times. If he was frustrated by the wasted time and gas, he didn’t show it—a part of me wondered if he used the time to get away from all of this for a few hours, taking Lovely Rita in the direction of the rising sun and returning in time for the sun to set.